Setting out from Kalkaska at 11 a.m. on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend with 17 miles to hike to a campground that was probably full was a risk. If I couldn’t find a site or a kind group willing to share their site, I’d be hiking another mile to make my own camp in the woods in the dark, an intimidating possibility at this early stage of my hike.
A ferociously sunny day on roads with little shade, I wore my bandana like a desert hiker to try and stave off the sunburn. I’m Irish; I burn easily.
The state forest north of Kalkaska was full of people enjoying the long weekend. ORVs, ATVs, dirt bikes, and dune buggies zoomed by me all day as people enjoyed the many motor trails in the area. I was the lone hiker.
I got used to the constant noise of the motors pretty quickly, but I can’t get used to the frequent gunshots you hear when hiking on public lands in Michigan. I’ve been told it’s legal to target shoot in state forests. I hear gunfire every day, more than this city girl is used to hearing. Where I come from, gunshots mean something very bad is happening.
The easy, 17-mile road walk to Pickerel Lake State Forest Campground gave me a lot of time to think. I thought about Ronald “Stronghold” Sanchez Jr., a thru hiker on the Appalachian Trail who was allegedly murdered this month by a deranged man with a machete. I thought about what a cruel death that was for a Veteran hoping a long walk through the woods would ease his Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. I was heartsick for him, and his family. Violence found him again on the trail, which has seemed immune. I knew it wasn’t, but the trail has always felt like a refuge.
I thought too about a comment my mother made during our last phone call, something to the effect of, “I’m impressed by how you can be so happy while depriving yourself of so much.” (Mom, my apologies for probably misquoting you.)
A missing piece of the puzzle fell into place as to why people often use the word “crazy,” affectionately, when talking about this hike. Why leave the comforts, the safety, of modern life behind to go walk 11-12 hours a day with 30 pounds on my back through the rain, the bugs, the heat?
On trail, I have fresh air to breathe, heightened senses, the wind gently teasing my hair, the sun warm on my face, the kiss of a cool mist on my skin. I have bird song for an alarm clock, frog song to serenade me at lunch, and owls singing me to sleep. I’m surprised every day by snakes slithering away, grouse bursting from the underbrush, by how the beauty of the woods can be so profound that my chest aches.
I’m deprived of the people and the animal I love. I’ll concede that. I can’t pet my dog and I miss him every day. I miss my family and friends, but I can’t force them to come out here. They’d be welcome! I’d be depriving them of what they need.
My loves will survive my short absence. I couldn’t deprive myself of the woods anymore.
So while my 17-mile road walk was a bit monotonous, my thoughts were far from it.
I hiked into a full-to-bursting campground at 9 p.m. as the sun set and a thunderstorm crackled on the southern horizon, and asked a group of kind strangers for help. They allowed me to pitch my tent behind their ATVs and two tents. They declined my money, but I left $10 tucked under their vodka bottle the next morning as I quietly snuck out of camp before they woke.
I was happy to be back under the freshly leafed canopy on a foot path again for the 10 miles to Sand Lake, where I saw hundreds of frogs fighting and mating, more than ever before in my life.
In the afternoon, I think I found three huge signal trees, a way Native Americans marked their trails by bending saplings to grow with right angles that signal the direction of the trail. One tree had three bent limbs, and I wondered if it had marked a trail junction two hundred years ago. I tried to imagine what life was like for those who walked whatever trail existed then.
I was setting up camp near Five Lake that night and shouted with glee when I almost pitched my tent on top of a morel mushroom patch. I harvested a couple for my soup.
I learned this week to double check the Avenza app maps with my printed maps as some differences exist in what is marked as public land. Maps have a publication date and things will and do change. I feared I’d accidentally camped on private land when I looked at my printed maps that night, but hadn’t seen no trespassing signs. A closer look proved I was on public lands, but just barely. On my Avenza app, the entire area around the lake was marked as public land.
On Five Lake, residents celebrated Memorial Day by shooting off fireworks and guns until 2 a.m. I woke the next morning feeling pretty worn out, and ground out the road walk to the Jordan River Valley. Upon reaching the trailhead, I discovered dispersed camping is not allowed in the valley. Frustrated that missing this important fact would mean choosing between hiking only 8 miles or attempting my first 20-mile day, I struggled to decide. Would I go big? Small? I started to make the decision a reflection on how I would approach the whole hike. Not helpful. I’ll have to adapt my plan a lot on this hike, and I just need to make the best decision I can at the time. I knew I’d missed things in my research, despite the 60-page trail dossier I put together. I was also supposed to connect with people from this chapter at the Trail Celebration, but arrived late and never got the chance.
I hiked down the side steep river valley on a strip of brown in a carpet of green and white trilliums. I decided to take a short day and camp at Pinney Bridge State Forest Campground. As I set up my tent at 1 p.m., it started raining and didn’t stop until 7 a.m. the next day. Sometimes, I get the feeling that these sudden changes to my plans are someone looking out for me. I napped, journaled and finished a book. Delicious.
I woke just as the rain stopped, and felt like a new woman. I hiked fast, startled a huge snake sunning himself on a bridge along O’Brien Pond, where it hid from me under the bridge. Three trumpeter swans swam 30 feet to my right. And the first swarm of mosquitos descended around me.
I hiked even faster, fleeing the mosquitos. I filtered water while they made spill from slapping myself constantly.
After hiking out of the Jordan River Valley, I started climbing up into a high ridge of young forest of beech and maple. The woods felt close and cozy, and I really wanted to camp there but I was out of water and kept going.
I crossed a road and into a totally different forest, a valley huge trees already leafed out and blocking the sun. A riot of wildflowers stretched ridge to ridge. The change was so sudden, I laughed.
I was aiming to camp in a small patch of public land bordering a road walk, another difference between my printed maps and Avenza. I suspected when I got there, there might not be public land. Has Michigan been selling parcels of state forest, I wondered? So far the differences between the March 2018 Avenza maps and November 2018 printed maps always shows less public land. The uncertainty of dispersed camping on public land was one of the challenges I most looked forward to on this hike. Getting to make my own camp, figure out how to read the woods, find good spots, all drew me to this trail, but I knew it would push me out of my comfort zone.
As I walked along Dobleski Road, I saw private properties and no trespassing signs but no state forest, that I could discern anyway. Having already hiked more than 15 miles, I debated whether to go another couple miles to the next stretch of state forest, or ask to camp at a beautiful farm on the road. My feet weren’t complaining, so I hiked on. The long days of early summer are making my learning curve on this hike much gentler.
I found a place to camp eventually in a quiet, young beech forest, like I’d been wanting to camp in earlier. I’d hiked 18.65 miles to get there, my longest day so far.
Despite sleeping deep and long, my energy crashed around mile 4 the next day, halfway through another road walk. As soon as I made it to the footpath again, another cloud of mosquitos descended. I’d been expecting them because here the trail runs about half a mile east of an enormous marsh.
I’ve hiked before in swarms of mosquitos and black flies so thick in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota that 100 percent DEET didn’t work, and my sanity was tested. The sound of a mosquito swarm made me panic at first, but I put on my bug net and kept hiking. They only bit me when I stopped moving, so I kept going. After just 13 miles, I broke down and set my tent up, desperate for a reprieve. I sat inside while it felt like a hundred mosquitos waited on the mesh outside. Then I noticed the ticks crawling all over the outside of my tent. That was a first for me. I’ve found plenty of ticks on me during all my outdoor activity, but never had them swarm my tent like the mosquitos and black flies. I kept finding ticks inside the tent, likely carried in by me on my gear and clothing. As I went to grab one to eject it from the tent, it disappeared. I could not find it! I put all my gear and hiking clothing on one side of the tent and myself on the other, waiting for the tick to eventually crawl out and try to bite me.
Dread settled in my stomach. Despite knowing this density of insects was likely caused by the marsh, I started wondering if the bugs were officially out, and would be this bad every day all day until August or September. Luke “Strider” Jordan, a 2013 thru-hiker of the NCT, told me the bugs in the Upper Peninsula were the worst he’d ever experienced, and he’s also from Minnesota. Secretly, I’d been hoping he’d never experienced the bugs in the BWCA in July, because I’d survive those, but studying the outside of my tent, I stared to accept I’m probably going to face much worse soon. Luke almost ended his hike because of the bugs. The prospect of this being my life for the next 2 1/2 months made doubt for the second time I could finish this halfway thru hike. “I’m not ready for this,” I thought, as the mosquitos droned on.
I scrambled out of the tent in my head net, rain coat and pants to hang my food in a tree, grab some water from the stream, and went to the bathroom. Mosquitos bit me every time I had to stand still.
I dove back into the tent, and hatched a plan to wake up at 5 a.m. in hopes cooler temperatures would settle the mosquitos down. Nope! As I packed up before 6 a.m., they were as thick as the day before. A breed of mosquito impervious to sun and cold. I’m in trouble, I thought. The only solution was to hike. I hoped once I’d passed the marsh, they’d disappear.
I was hiking so fast, I tried to ford an area where beavers had flooded the trail. I missed a new trail to the right. Halfway across, water up to my knees and a series of downed trees blocking my path, I thought, “This can’t be right,” backed up, and found the trail. If I let them, the mosquitos affect my judgment.
As I broke out of the forest to a view of rolling fields stretching to the horizon in Cherry Valley, I noticed the high-pitched whine of the swarm had quieted. Cautiously, I removed my head net. They were gone. I immediately sat down and took a break. After a hot, sweaty, itchy morning, to sit without harassment felt divine. I flicked a tick off of my leg.
I stopped at a gorgeous property in the valley where the map shows there is a well. The owner plans to run a spigot out to the road for NCT hikers, but it’s not there yet. He generously brought me back to his well house and filled both my bottles with cold, delicious water while his friendly dachshunds circled my feet.
Climbing even further up out of the bugs in gorgeous ridge trails, I met Steve, the only other backpacker I saw on this whole stretch of trail. He’s hiking the entire Lower Peninsula in 10-day chunks, and has already completed the Upper Peninsula. “Do you have a bug net for the UP?” he asked. I pulled it out of my pocket and warned him about the bugs to the south.
The rest of my 15-mile hike to Dove and John Day’s home sailed by. Dove and John are the trail coordinators for the Jordan Valley 45 Chapter of the NCT. As soon as I walked up to their door, Dove emerged, a huge smile on her face, and asked if I wanted to shower. This woman speaks hiker love language, I thought.
I have about 64 miles left to hike to finish this stretch in the Lower Peninsula before I head home for a week to attend a cousin’s wedding. Then I’ll be back to face the bugs in the UP, and find the beauty through the madness.
Section: Kalkaska to Petosky
Total miles: 297.9